Monday, March 1, 2010

Against the Misappropriation of George Orwell

Yglesias has an important note on the American Right's wrong-headed adoption of Orwell for their own imperialist and theocratic purposes. Not only was Orwell a committed Socialist, he was arguably even more of an anti-Fascist and anti-Capitalist. Yes, he expressed great fears of the destructive potential of certain centralized states. Yet, mercifully, he recognized what so many in the Unites States today do not: that a centralized government acting as a vehicle of the citizenry's will is not the same as a rapacious, imperialist police state bent on total social and cultural homogeneity. Fortunately, the closest we've come to having an irrationally expansionist police state that spat on the rule of law expired in January of last year.


  1. Speaking of things expiring or not, the Patriot Act was just renewed by Congress and Obama:

    The Teabaggers are unprincipled, hypocritical, and seething with a variety of ugly pathologies--their support for Bush/Cheney robs their movement of legitimacy (and their war & torture loving enablers at Fox News are even more laughably lacking in credibility on these issues).

    But I'm not so sure we've made a clean break from our years of irrational, expansionist, rapacious imperialism. Reading about Sec. Gates lecturing NATO for, essentially, being too peaceful was nauseating. And then I just came across this quote from a WaPo article from 1985:

    "Reagan, always more tender-hearted when dealing with real people than with abstract ideas, decided that retaliation in which innocent civilians are killed is 'itself a terrorist act' -- a view he expressed publicly at his June 18 news conference."

    The fact that no one on the public stage even comes close to acting along ethical lines formulated by Ronald freaking Reagan is depressing, no?

  2. I understand your perspective on each point. What I mean about the clean break is specific to the restoration of the rule of law. Obama, as you know, banned torture, extraordinary rendition, universal unaccountability to Congress or the courts, and seeks to end the era of illegal imprisonment - with the exceptions being cases where release or judicial conviction are complicated by previous torture or affiliation with Yemeni or Somali al Qaeda branches, it seems. Yes, he has made too many concessions to the national security state. But a transition from the Bush era to a lawful one cannot be achieved instantly.

    And as for civilian casualties being a terrorist act: that is a sympathetic sentiment, whether it be Reagan's or anyone else's. Yet, we both know that foreign policy is more complicated than that. Reagan committed an enormous amount of terrorism in Central America by his own standards. Furthermore, the old notion that if anyone gets hurt, it is bad foreign policy I have never accepted. I am not a pacifist and never will be. Nor do I view any use of force as an act of neocolonialist aggression or rapacious greed - though it is quite often the case. In the case of Afghanistan or anywhere else, of course civilian casualties are regrettable. The alternative, of course, to waging war against a group that shields itself by living amongst civilians is not to engage them at all. And since Pakistan mostly does just that, a direct threat to national security results with no action. Yes, the Taliban are merely a part of the problem. Yes, military solutions are limited in Central Asia. But if the Taliban is not engaged, there is a danger Pakistan's thread of a civilian government will fall, and nobody needs that, most of all the Pakistanis. Appealing to one's pure moral sense always works rhetorically when criticizing the national security state - and no doubt it should be criticized. But we both know that beyond a simple moral appeal, the use of force is the only means to combating theocrats, brutes, and enemies of open society in this world. The real tragedy is when the United States blurs the distinction. To my mind, the case of Afghanistan is not one of them.

  3. Of course you’re right about the very real and important ways that Obama has broken with the criminal enterprise that preceded him. I do wish he would close Gitmo on schedule, but I understand that the political opposition to doing so is strong (though, ironically, its strength derives from a cowardice that is shocking even in 2010). I also wish that the commitment to restoring rule of law extended to punishing people who committed crimes, especially war crimes (Cheney crowing about his support for torture on national television has to be a low point for our times), but again I understand the politics behind not doing so. On the other hand, given how grotesquely infatuated with incarceration this country is, I honestly don’t think it would be that hard to make the case to the public that people who break the law should be punished for it. Still, I’ll allow that the economic situation and health care reform were worthwhile reasons to ignore the issue, even if it contributes to a mounting, dangerous precedent of letting the powerful break certain kinds of laws. But that ship has definitely sailed.

    More broadly, I find his administration less coherent on these issues than I would have hoped for anyone succeeding Bush/Cheney. The recent Supreme Court case where the Solicitor General argued in favor of criminalizing “filing a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of a terrorist group” ( is troubling since the State Department decides which groups are terrorists with no oversight. What I’d like is a clearer sense of where Obama thinks the limits of executive power should be. When we’re talking about foundational principles like these, this kind of ad hoc, situational approach—driven by fear of the scary terrorists—makes me nervous. Not scanning-the-horizon-for-the-black-helicopters nervous, but worried that it will take a very long time to undue the damage done by Bush et al, longer than it could have with a bolder president.

    On Afghanistan:
    I’m not a pacifist either, though what I was trying to get at with that Reagan thing (and yeah, Ronnie violated the crap out of that statement numerous times; trust me, I’m the last person to lionize that guy, hence my surprise at his sentiments) was that I wish there were some intelligent pacifists involved in our decisions about foreign policy. To put it with excessive mildness, we’ve occasionally paid a price for our often cavalier approach to the affairs of other nations and our disregard (or the appearance of it, depending on your perspective) for the loss of life that results. But what really worries me is this: “waging war against a group that shields itself by living amongst civilians.” I agree that in fighting an insurgency, you can’t worry about killing civilians excessively, but I disagree that that’s because the Taliban or Al-Qaeda are “living amongst” them. In Afghanistan, we are an invading force, we’re occupiers—they’re not camouflaged among normal people, they are the people, and while what you say is true, especially with regards to Pakistan, I don’t see how we can achieve success. The resentment we’re sowing will surely come back to bite us. Okay, I’m prognosticating now and it’s not like you can argue with my precognitive abilities, plus I have no solution to offer!

  4. "Fortunately, the closest we've come to having an irrationally expansionist police state that spat on the rule of law expired in January of last year."

    Consider the presidencies of Lincoln, Wilson, and (F) Roosevelt before placing Bush on the top of the list. He is certainly a blip on the grid, but there have been greater threats to liberty in the history of the United States.

    Orwell raises very valid points against specific types of centralized governments, but we are closer to living in Huxley's nightmare than Orwell's, I think. Drugs and hugs are just as dangerous as rifle butts.

    "a centralized government acting as a vehicle of the citizenry's will"

    Is this ever truly the case?

  5. Re: Rob on Afghanistan:

    I agree with you in part. We should not be occupying Afghanistan. We also would be derelict in our duties to abandon to an unpopular Taliban gang at this point.

    When you say the Taliban are "the people" in Afghanistan, I disagree somewhat. Yes, they are Pashtun tribal people in large part, but that is only a segment of the population, and they are located almost exclusively in the east and south of the country. Obama's strategy of military engagement with the hardliners while simultaneously conducting shadow diplomacy with more moderate members of the Pakistani and Afghan wings of the group is appropriate and, if the arrest of Mullah Baradar in Karachi is any indication, beginning to take shape. What is misleading, I think, in your claim of the Taliban as "the people" in Afghanistan is the insinuation that they are somehow popular within the country, or fighting on behalf of an aggrieved and long-suffering citizenry. Let us never forget the Taliban are not homegrown. They were essentially a social engineering experiment of General Zia in Pakistan and now have turned into the Frankenstein monster that cannot be reigned in.

    Moreover, al Qaeda is certainly not "the people" in Afghanistan. They are almost exclusively foreign jihadis, and the leadership, as you know, are mostly Egyptians. I think it is telling though how much less regard Pakistan has for them as compared to their Pashtun brothers in the Taliban. Nearly all al Qaeda leadership killed or captured has occurred within Pakistani borders: KSM, Ramzi bin alShibh, Abu Zubaydah, Abu al-Libi, etc. I find this encouraging from a national security standpoint. Even as Musharraff was bilking us of our aid money and lining his coffers and widening his choke hold on Pakistani society, these international bandits were captured and sometimes killed. Not bad.

    This is why I want to give the Obama Afghan strategy a chance. I trust Petraeus and Obama as mature and responsible leaders, and I respect their short-term vision. What gives me pause, however, is it seems they may not have a long-term one. We will see.